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The Star-Ledger

Tourists Moving Into Vieques After Navy Ships Out


July 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

ISABEL II, Puerto Rico -- There are no traffic lights in Vieques, and no formal addresses. You'll find no street names, except for several two-lane roads that are numbered.

Road 200 runs from the port town of Isabel II to the airport. Road 997 connects Isabel II to the island's second town, Esperanza. Wild horses and chickens wander across the uneven asphalt.

The Navy used the island for maneuvers and target practice, but left last year. You can still get to Red Beach, one of the island's finest, by driving past a deserted barracks and hanging a right onto an old airstrip.

Now Vieques is poised to become a tourist magnet. Property values have quadrupled in the past year. James Weis, who owns the Inn on Blue Horizon, a plantation-style compound overlooking the Caribbean, likes to tell visitors that "people come for a vacation and end up putting a down payment on something."

The island, which is 21 miles long and located seven miles off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico, is often referred to as one of the Spanish Virgin Islands - the other is nearby Culebra.

Vieques is still very much a work in progress, which is part of its charm. The streets are lined with modest concrete homes, some fancifully colored and tidy, and others gray and unpainted and in a seemingly perpetual state of half-construction. An occasional washing machine stands out in a yard like a lawn ornament. Violent crime is all but unheard of here, although it's best to mind your valuables at the beach.

Unemployment runs at about 60 percent, but there is none of the out-and-out poverty that one encounters in the tin-and-cinderblock shantytowns in such places as Nassau, St. Martin or other Caribbean destinations. Locals will tell you there are too many people on the public dole for that, reaping the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

I met what locals call a "North American" working the system: a sun-singed, unapologetic woman who came here for the dual purpose of making jewelry and collecting checks from the government.

There are two ways to travel to Vieques - both require a stopover in San Juan. The flights from Newark to San Juan take about our hours. Because both the small aircraft flights and the ferry service end in late afternoon, it is difficult to do the full trip in one day. A few nights on mainland Puerto Rico will make the journey less arduous.

One suggestion is to spend some time in San Juan, another to go to the city's resort strip - Isla Verde. Isla Verde is a mile from the international airport. The beach is long and wide, fine for swimming and running, and lined with full-service hotels. The Ritz-Carlton has a top spa and dramatic palm-lined pool. The Intercontinental has club rooms in the cabana wing that are just steps from the sand. Either way, you'll want to check out the glamorous scene at the legendary El San Juan hotel and casino, where men with gold chains puff on cigars as if trans-ported to San Juan from old Havana.

The flight between San Juan and Vieques takes 25 minutes. An alternative route to Vieques is to deplane in San Juan and make a beeline for the shuttle bus to the Wyndham El Conquistador hotel and country club. The ride takes more than an hour, but the next day you have can take either a 7-minute flight on a puddle-jumper (some as small as six seats) or a 70-minute ferry from Fajardo.

Don't rush out of the El Conquistador. Enjoy a treatment at the Golden Door Spa. The resort, which also has a casino, is huge and built in sections. For intimacy you'll want to book a room at the upscale Casitas Village, with its brand-new cliff-top infinity pool, or at the Marina, which directly overlooks the lashing waves. Don't expect to snag a jeep rental once in Vieques; it's best to reserve weeks in advance.

A car is optional for a few nights' stay at the Wyndham Martineau Bay, a luxurious beachfront property originally built as a Rosewood resort. The rooms are decked out in soothing blues and whites, and the furniture was handcrafted in Mexico and the Philippines, but it's the bathrooms that are the big draw. The huge three-speed Jacuzzi tubs, set in tiled, oval alcoves, have an open design that lets you gaze at the ocean while bathing, and the shaving mirrors can extend into the bath. Even the ceramic water cups are hand-signed by the artist. Outside, a freeform pool with swim-up bar com-petes for guests' attention with a pair of small, perfect coves fit for a castaway movie. The sand is the color of coffee ice cream, and the waters are great for swim-ming and mesmerizing to look at. If you get too much sun, there's always the spa's After Sun Rainforest Wrap - ask for a treatment room overlooking the water.

A vehicle is essential for exploring the island's larger beaches, which hold their own with the best in the Caribbean. Most accessible is the public beach called Sun Bay, where admission is either two dollars or nothing, depending on whether anyone shows up to work the gatehouse. The coast directly in front of the entrance is rocky, but a short walk in either direction will reward sun-worshippers with soft sand and clear waters. A bumpy dirt road from Sun Bay leads to two other beaches. Media Luna (Half Moon), a misnomer since the bay is almost a closed circle, has powdery sand and shallow, waveless waters - great for families - while Navio is a bit choppy, suitable for strong swimmers, and star-tlingly beautiful.

Many consider Red Beach, its secluded neighbor Garcia, and Blue Beach to be the prizes of the island. All have been open for recreation since the Navy left. Red is easy to find, you can park along a fence facing the sea, and the swimming is glorious.

Just beware of the sharp little burrs that grow in the brush near the parking lot that like to attach themselves to shoes and clothing. Blue Beach, a little more difficult to find, is a local legend for its vistas and tiny offshore islands that you can wade to.

As for the towns, Esperanza is nothing more than a sleepy row of restaurants and rustic guest houses where the main activity is seeking respite from the sun with an icy drink in your hand. Gringos with reddened faces and hair burnt blond by the sun, looking like they've found the optimal place to drop out of society, walk unsteadily with perpetual squints. Across the street, the dock is where people meet for nighttime excursions to the bioluminescent bay. Once there, you can swim or kayak among millions of illuminated mi-croorganisms called dinoflagellates for an otherworldly experience.

The town of Isabel II is more developed, if shopworn, with a post office, a pharmacy and a few small restaurants and pizza parlors. Is-land Computer Network Solution offers Internet and copying service. Sundry stores sell both T-shirts and baby chicks dyed in a rainbow of colors. Vieques has some very choice inns and guest houses. Hacienda Tamarindo, with its sea views, is a charming bed & breakfast with Spanish colonial touches, while the inland Crow's Nest has clean rooms with kitchens and sitting areas for the budget traveler.

Inn on the Blue Horizon, immortalized by Paul Theroux in a 2000 spread in "Architectural Digest," is a lovingly tended treasure overlooking a rocky beach, with charming, antique-filled guest rooms, a comfortable open-air den and a serene swimming pool. The grounds are expansive for such a small inn (10 units), which means lots of room to roam about and drop into an Adirondack chair to contemplate the sea. (The Inn, like the much larger Wyndham, has plans to add more rooms.) The Inn's Blue Macaw restaurant will satisfy foodies, and the bar menu at Blu Bar boasts excellent soup and burgers. In fact, the restaurant scene in Vieques is quite sophisticated and gaining ground. In Isabel II, Media Luna has a place of honor for its haute cuisine, while the more ca-sual spots in Esperanza, such as Bananas, Tropical Baby and Tradewinds, offer salads, sandwiches and island fare at reasona-ble prices. The recently opened M Bar, across the road from the Wyndham, is creating a buzz.

The hottest dining venue on the island is Chef Michael's Food-Space. Located in the Bravo Beach Hotel, FoodSpace is both a high-end restaurant and a New York-style gourmet deli offering cured meats and prepared foods, a vast array of cheeses and wines, and a walk-in refrigerated room for cold drinks. The space is sleek and ul-tra-modern, a design esthetic also reflected in the hotel's rooms, which feature custom-made platform beds illuminated from be-neath by strips of neon, flat-screen TVs and white-and-brushed chrome furnishings.

The first time I went to Vieques, I didn't leave the Wyndham other than to hire a driver to take me to Red Beach for a few hours. No complaints about that trip. The second time, however, I planned ahead and rented a jeep from Maritza's: Maritza's is great because they'll deliver your jeep to your hotel and drive you back when you return it.

I drove all over, bumping along the rural roads, taking pictures of passing horses. I got stuck in a ditch at Navio and was helped out by some folks from Arizona. I was invited to people's homes for dinner, and heard stories about the water being turned off for a few days, about the Navy getting things up and running after the last hurricane, about the halfhearted effort by some locals to achieve Puerto Rico's independence from the U.S. But mostly they talked about real estate and property management, about building permits and the growing influx of North American dollars and high-end tourism.

I bought supplies in the dowdy shack outside Esperanza that everyone refers to as "the green store." In front of me in the cashier's line was a woman of a certain age, an apparition erect in a Chanel suit, careful makeup and pricey sunglasses. I watched her pay for her groceries as if she were at Neiman's. And I understood, as only a Viequenze could.

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